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Former CIA Director Petraeus Weighs In On Drone Shootdown


Iran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone overnight in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran says the drone was in Iranian airspace. The U.S. disputes that claim. According to a U.S. Central Command spokesperson this morning, quote, "Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false," end quote. The USS Bainbridge has been dispatched to assess wreckage from the attack. General David Petraeus is with us now. He served as director of the CIA after almost 40 years in the Army, including as the head of U.S. Central Command.

General, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, Rachel. Thanks.

MARTIN: The U.S. claims this was an unprovoked attack on a U.S. surveillance asset in international airspace. But is that clear? I mean, if - can - do you know the exact delineation of Iranian airspace?

PETRAEUS: Well, certainly, the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center does know that. And I think it is not trivial how clear it is where the plane - where the drone - this is a very, very large, by the way - 130-foot wingspan, Global Hawk - unarmed surveillance drone - costs more than an F35 at this point. And so whether it was shot down, again, over international waters, international airspace or over Iran is not a trivial issue. How clear that evidence is is very important. For example, next week, the - he will then be the acting secretary of defense - Mark Esper will be going to a NATO defense ministerial. And certainly, this will be at the top of the list of discussion because we want our allies on board with whatever it is that we decide as we go forward.

MARTIN: If this was not a defensive move by Iran, if it is - if it becomes clear that this absolutely happened over international airspace, how does that change the current dynamic between the United States and Iran?

PETRAEUS: Well, this would be the first direct attack on a U.S. weapons system, if you will. Although, again, let me stress this is an unarmed surveillance drone. It's not...

MARTIN: Right. There was no pilot.

PETRAEUS: No pilot and no weapons - and again, this is not a Predator or Reaper that has a lot of different missiles hanging underneath it. It's used for reconnaissance. It was, according to U.S. Central Command - and again, they're not going to report something that's inaccurate. The question is, again, how clear, how precise can they show specifically where this was? And then the question is, does the president, in particular - because he's been downplaying the previous attacks. And so far, the secretary of state has established a red line when he was in Iraq that dealt with an American killed. So that actually is the threshold, which, if Iran goes beyond it, there will be a response. The question here is, is this sufficient, again, to generate a response?

And then, you know, the Central Command commander, I'm sure, is asking a number of questions of his staff and of those in Washington, trying to get a more precise understanding, undoubtedly, of the policy objectives of the maximum pressure campaign. He's undoubtedly asking, is the theater set? And by that I mean, are the air-defense elements and the early-warning radars in position and integrated? We've had deployment orders for additional troops. Are they on the ground? Are the radars up? Are the Patriots and so forth all in position? Are there sufficient fighter bombers on the ground with sufficient logistical support? By the way, what about minesweeper capability? And this is, again, where you very much want allies because although we have some modest capability of our own in Bahrain, the British have an equal capability that is very, very significant if we are going to have to get into any kind of mine-clearance operation. So this is a bit of Iran sort of feeling the edges. They are - someone said this morning, you know, that we're doing the maximum pressure. They're doing the maximum provocation strategy.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, as someone who has studied Iran from a foreign policy perspective for many years, do you think the Trump administration's pressure campaign is the right move if it's provoking this kind of aggression?

PETRAEUS: Well, again, I'd want to know what the more specific objectives than, say, the 12, essentially, demands in a speech that Secretary of State Pompeo gave last year, I think, at the Heritage Foundation. And so, again, specifically what are we trying to achieve relative to, say, their nuclear program, their missile program, their support for Shia militia in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and Lebanon and so forth?

MARTIN: You're saying those are not clear. Those objectives have not been made clear by the administration.

PETRAEUS: Well, we have some very, very substantial demands, but no Iranian regime could agree to those and stay in power. So - and it's pretty well known that these are negotiable. This is an opening position that is quite significant but something the Iranians could not agree to.

So again, how do you get the Iranians to the table? What will be the topics? Can you start through Oman or Switzerland or Japan? And by the way, we had a very good reminder last week of something that we often forget. And that is that there are two Iranian states. There is the visible state, that's the one with which Prime Minister Abe was primarily meeting...

MARTIN: The Japanese prime minister who was there.

PETRAEUS: ...The president, Parliament ministers. But then there's the deep state - the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Quds Force - their CIA/Special Operations equivalent. They're the ones who undoubtedly carried out an attack on a Japanese-flagged vessel at the same time their president was meeting with the Japanese president - prime minister. And so, what is - again, who's in charge? Who's calling the shots in Iran? And that is yet another question I'm sure the intelligence community is asking.

MARTIN: OK. General David Petraeus served as director of the CIA.

Thank you so much.

PETRAEUS: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.